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The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats

September 9, 2011 - January 29, 2012


Jack Katz, c. 1921
Photograph courtesy of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation

As a child, Keats lived with his family in a railroad flat on Vermont Street in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Later, as their financial situation worsened, they moved to a tenement in the same neighborhood.

Ezra Jack Keats
Shantytown, c. 1934
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats, “the background man” (by window at right) at Captain Marvel comics
studio, c. 1942

Ezra Jack Keats
“Juanito bent his legs to show how his dog ran (patizambo!)”
Page from dummy book for My Dog Is Lost!, 1960
Watercolor, pencil, and crayon on paper
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

In My Dog Is Lost!, Juanito, just arrived in New York from Puerto Rico and unable to speak English, enlists the help of new friends as he wanders the city’s neighborhoods in search of his missing canine companion. Juanito was probably inspired by Freddy, a boy Keats met in the early 1950s and later mentioned in his memoirs: “a Puerto Rican nine year old who entered and left our place like a member of the family and about whom some day I would do a book.”

Cover of The Snowy Day, 1962

Ezra Jack Keats
“He told his mother all about his adventures”
Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962
Collage and pencil on board
10 1/8 x 20 1/16 in. (25.7 x 51 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Cover of John Henry: An American Legend, 1965

Keats: Over in the Meadow
Ezra Jack Keats
Final illustration for Over in the Meadow, by Olive A. Wadsworth, 1971
Collage and watercolor on board
9 1/2 x 20 in. (24 x 50.8 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Ezra Jack Keats
“The man in the truck turned around. He looked terrible!”
Final illustration for Louie’s Search, 1980
Paint and collage on board
12 x 22 1/16 in. (30.5 x 56 cm)
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats modeled Barney the junkman in Louie’s Search on Tzadik, a local ragman who led a reclusive and humble existence, eking out a living hauling “big sacks of coal, or enormous hunks of ice on his back. Even pianos,” as well as on himself. When Keats was a boy Tzadik exhorted him to lead an observant Jewish life filled with purpose, inspiring Keats to follow his dream of becoming an artist.

Keats Poses as Barney
Research photograph for Louie’s Search, 1980
Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi

Keats’s father, Benjamin Katz, immigrates to the United States from Poland.

Keats’s mother, Augusta (Gussie) Podgainy immigrates to the United States from Poland with her thirteen-year-old sister, who perishes during their journey in steerage.

Augusta Podgainy and Benjamin Katz marry on December 26.

Jacob (Jack) Ezra Katz, later known as Ezra Jack Keats, is born on March 11 in East New York, Brooklyn, the youngest of three children.

Keats attends Junior High School 149 in East New York, where he befriends Martin Pope. Pope and later his wife, Lillie, will be Keats’s friends for the rest of his life, making their house a second home for him.

Keats attends Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York.

His painting Shantytown wins first place in a national art competition sponsored by the magazine publisher Scholastic and is shown with other prize-winning works in a traveling exhibition. A select few of these, including Shantytown, are displayed at Columbia Teachers College in New York the following year.

Keats meets the painter Max Weber, having been invited to visit his studio on Long Island.

On January 23, the day before Keat’s graduation from high school, his father dies suddenly.

Keats receives a number of scholarships to pursue art. Having taken courses at the Educational Alliance Art School under Abbo Ostrowsky in 1934, he intermittently attends classes in New York, at the Art Students League, where he studies drawing and watercolor under George Grosz, and at the Florence Cane School of Art, where he studies oil and mural painting with the renowned muralist Jean Charlot.

Keats finds employment as an assistant mural painter for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

He works in the comics industry, at among others Fawcett Publications, where he draws backgrounds for the Captain Marvel comic strips.

Keats serves in the air force of the U.S. Army, designing camouflage patterns.

In December, he files a legal petition to change his name from Jacob Ezra Katz to Ezra Jack Keats. The request is granted in February 1948.

Augusta Katz, the artist’s mother, dies on May 8.

Keats spends half a year in Paris, attending art classes at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière and painting. He travels briefly to England, the Low Countries, and Italy.

Keats works on covers for Reader’s Digest, and on illustrations for The New York Times Book Review, Collier’s, Playboy, and other publications. He designs more than forty dust jackets for books, from The Hive by Camilo José Cela (1953) to The Race of the Tiger by Alexander Cordell (1963).

The first book for children illustrated by Keats, Jubilant for Sure by Elizabeth Hubbard Lansing, is published. The book is set in Appalachia; Keats travels to Tennessee to sketch the landscape and people in preparation for the assignment. His art for the book paves the way for his career in children’s literature. He will eventually illustrate more than sixty books for children and young adults written by other authors, from Lucretia Hale’s The Peterkin Papers (1955) to Penny Tunes and Princesses (1972) by Myron Levoy.

My Dog Is Lost! is published, cowritten with Pat Cherr. The book teaches young readers some Spanish: Juanito, with few English words in his vocabulary, gets help searching for his dog from a diverse group of characters. The book is pioneering in casting a Puerto Rican boy as its protagonist.

The Snowy Day, the first book to be both written and illustrated by Keats, is published at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States. The main character, Peter, is the first African-American protagonist in a modern full-color picture book. Before its publication, African-American characters either were absent from children’s literature or were portrayed in a negative or stereotyped fashion. Earlier efforts in African-American picture books to present positive depictions of black children were few in number and not far-reaching. The Snowy Day will become an inspiration for generations of readers and children’s book authors.

Keats wins the Caldecott Medal for The Snowy Day, a recognition for the most distinguished picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year. He goes on to write and illustrate twenty more books in the next twenty years.

Whistle for Willie is published. In this book, Peter, a few years older than in The Snowy Day, tries and eventually learns how to whistle to his dog, Willie.

“The All-White World of Children’s Literature,” by Nancy Larrick, appears in the Saturday Review (September 11, 1965). Larrick sparks controversy when she criticizes The Snowy Day for depicting Peter’s mother as a stereotypical “mammy,” calling her "a huge figure in a gaudy yellow plaid dress, albeit without a red bandana." Keats and many others rebuff Larrick in letters to the editor.

In a Spring Garden, edited by Richard Lewis, is published. Keats illustrates this collection of haikus with poignant images.

John Henry: An American Legend is published. Keats tells the story of the mythical strongman who hammered through a mountain while working on the railroad.

At the Venice Film Festival, a screen version of The Snowy Day wins the Lion of Saint Mark Award for best short film for children.

God Is in the Mountain is published. Keats selects proverbs of religious and ethnic groups around the world and provides evocative illustrations.

Jennie’s Hat, Keats’s first story with a female protagonist, is published. Superb collages fill the book.

Peter’s Chair is published. In the third book of the Peter series, the title character learns to adjust to the addition of a younger sister to the family.

Keats travels to Iran to attend the Second Tehran International Festival of Films for Children, as a guest of honor of the Empress Farah Pahlavi. An animated film version of Whistle for Willie (Weston Woods Studios) is shown.

A Letter to Amy is published. Peter, now a few years older and interested in girls, decides to invite Amy to his birthday party. The artist’s mastery of watercolor and collage captures the mood of a stormy day in the city.

Goggles! is published. Peter and his friend Archie must outwit bullies in order to keep the motorcycle goggles they have found near their hideout. The book is a Caldecott Honor winner in 1970.

Hi, Cat! is published and captures the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. In the story, Peter and Archie try to entertain their friends in the street, but an alley cat interferes.

Keats meets Fred Rogers at a forum on mass media and child development at the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Rogers invites the artist to his PBS program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Keats appears four times between 1971 and 1974.

Apt. 3 is published. On a lonely, rainy day, Sam and his young brother Ben set out to find the source of the beautiful harmonica music filling their tenement building.

The King’s Fountain, by Lloyd Alexander, is published. Keats had originally created the art in the book to illustrate “Elijah the Slave,” a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, but the project did not come to fruition as intended. Instead, inspired by Keats’s dramatic pictures, Alexander wrote a new story to accompany them.

Over in the Meadow is published. Keats furnishes luscious vignettes for this edition of the popular counting rhyme and song.

Pet Show! is published. When Archie cannot locate his alley cat for the pet show, he finds a clever way to stay in the running for a blue ribbon.

Keats takes his first trip to Japan where he encounters the Ohanashi Caravan, a mobile storytelling and puppetry troupe. The company's performance of the Russian folktale “The Giant Turnip” later inspires him to illustrate the story, which he sets in Japan.

Keats travels to Japan a second time, for the inauguration of a skating rink named after him and inspired by his book Skates! (1973), in the city of Kiyose.

Dreams is published. In this story, while everyone else in his tenement building falls asleep and dreams, Roberto saves Archie’s alley cat from a menacing dog. Keats’s combination of paint and marbleized paper reaches a pinnacle.

Louie is published. The shy and quiet title character is captivated by Gussie the puppet at Roberto and Susie’s show. Louie will be the protagonist in three more books.

Keats takes his last trip to Japan, to visit Akira Ishida’s parents and his grave. Akira, who died in a car accident at age nine, was an adoring fan of Keats’s. The enduring popularity of his books in Japan prompts several exhibitions of his work there in the 1990s.

The Trip is published. After his family has moved away, Louie uses his creativity and imagination to travel back to his old neighborhood to see his friends.

Maggie and the Pirate is published. In one of Keats’s few books not set in an urban environment, Maggie and her friends are on a mission to find the “pirate” who stole her pet cricket.

Louie’s Search is published. Solitary Louie sets out in search of the father figure he lacks. While scouting his neighborhood he has a run-in with a temperamental junk peddler, who unexpectedly puts an end to the boy’s plight when his gentler side wins over Louie’s mother.

Keats is awarded the University of Southern Mississippi Medallion for his outstanding contribution to the field of children’s literature.

Regards to the Man in the Moon is published. Louie defies his teasing friends when his new stepfather, Barney, shows him that with a little imagination any old junk can transport him and his friend Susie into space.

The artist travels to Israel with a former high school teacher, the author Florence Freedman, with whom he has remained in contact.

Clementina’s Cactus is published. In a story that Keats brings to life without text, little Clementina is intrigued by a prickly cactus she and her father spot while on a walk. The book is inspired by a trip Keats took to Arizona with Martin and Lillie Pope and their family.

May 6, Keats dies after a heart attack. By the time of his death he has illustrated more than eighty books for children, twenty-two of which he also wrote. His book The Giant Turnip was near completion at the time of his death.

In October, Martin Pope is elected president of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which was established in 1964 but becomes more active after the artist’s death. The foundation is a not-for-profit charitable organization that supports art, literacy, and family programs with funds provided by royalties from Keats’s book sales.

In December, the musical The Trip, featuring costume and set design based on Keats’s illustrations for his book of the same title, debuts at the First All Children’s Theater in New York (with libretto by Anthony Stein; music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; produced by Meridee Stein, Kurt Peterson, and Robert Reich; and directed by Meridee Stein). The musical, now titled Captain Louie, continues to be presented around the country today.



The Keats Foundation donates the artist’s papers and correspondence to the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. A selection of Keats’s works is exhibited at the de Grummond in 1988.

In collaboration with the Keats Foundation, the New York City Board of Education establishes the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition, a creative bookmaking and storytelling initiative for youngsters in grades 3 through 12.

The New York Public Library, in collaboration with the Keats Foundation, establishes the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award, granted biennially (and from 1999, annually) to promising children’s book authors who uphold Keats’s mission of multiculturalism and the universality of childhood. In 2001 the library and the foundation create the Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award, given annually to recognize outstanding artwork in children’s books.

Keats’s work is featured in Lasting Impressions: Illustrating African American Children’s Books, which opens in October at the California African American Museum, Los Angeles. Guest curated by the children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney, the show travels to numerous venues, including the Cleveland Museum of Art (February 17–April 17, 1994); the Capital Children’s Museum, Washington, D.C. (May 6–July 9, 1995); the Detroit Institute of Arts (September 2–October 29, 1995); the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum, Las Vegas (November 17, 1995–January 7, 1996); the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (February 4–March 31, 1996); and the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick, New Jersey (September 15–November 17, 1996).

A Keats exhibition is held at the Children’s Room of the Donnell Library Center, a branch of the New York Public Library.

Children’s Artist of the City: An Ezra Jack Keats Retrospective is on view at the Brooklyn Public Library, Central Library (January 4–February 24).

Keats’s work is included in Myth, Magic, and Mystery: One Hundred Years of American Children’s Book Illustration at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia (June 2–September 8); the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis (November 3, 1996–January 6, 1997); and the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington (February 7–April 6, 1997).

The American Library Association Annual Conference posthumously honors Keats for his outstanding advocacy for libraries.

The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Texas, opens the exhibition Ezra Jack Keats: Artscapes (November 28, 2000–February 17, 2001). Under different titles, it travels to four other venues through 2003.

Collage: An Ezra Jack Keats Retrospective is on view at the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi (January–August).

Brooklyn Recreation, Information & Culture (BRIC) establishes the annual Ezra Jack Keats Free Family Concert in Prospect Park’s Celebrate Brooklyn! series.

The Society of Illustrators, based in New York City, honors Keats with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award.

Keats is featured in Children Should Be Seen: The Image of the Child in American Picture-Book Art, at the Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York (July 1–October 21); the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts (November 15, 2007–March 9, 2008); and the Los Angeles Public Library, Central Library (July 1–September 14, 2008).

Keats is included in the exhibition Drawing from a Story: Selected Caldecott Medal Winners, at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (March 20–May 23).

The exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats opens at The Jewish Museum, New York, New York (September 9, 2011–January 29, 2012), traveling afterward to the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Massachusetts (June 26–October 14, 2012), the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, California (November 15, 2012–February 24, 2013) and the Akron Art Museum, Akron, Ohio (March–May 2013).

This Timeline is drawn from "Timeline" by Emily Casden and Claudia J. Nahson in The Snowy Day and the Art of
Ezra Jack Keats
(2011) by Claudia J. Nahson and published by Yale University Press and The Jewish Museum, New York.